There’s so much in this text that I think I’ll just dive in and see where it goes. We’ll cover as much as we can in the next few days.
All good sermons can be illustrated by referring to an episode of the television series, M.A.S.H. In “Showtime,” the episode that concludes the first season, Father Mulcahy is troubled by his apparent uselessness in the camp. Mulcahy and Hawkeye Pierce sit together in the mess tent.
“You’re not eating, Father,” Hawkeye begins. “You know something I don’t know?” Mulcahy furrows his brow, “Something’s troubling me.” Pierce leans into the conversation, “Think of me as your mother, Father.”
“May I make a confession?” Mulcahy asks, oblivious to the wisecrack. “As long as you don’t use any real names,” Pierce responds.
“For some time now, I’ve been comparing the disparity of our callings,” Mulcahy muses. “Doctor versus priest. You fellows are always able to see the end result of your work. I mean,” he continues, “you know immediately if you’ve been successful. For me, the results are far less tangible. Sometimes…most of the time…I honestly don’t know,” he sighs, “whether I’m doing any good or not.”
Pierce offers some encouragement about an old medical school saw that God does the healing and the physician collects the fee. Mulcahy is not particularly persuaded.
Later, Pierce and McIntire are operating on a patient. The surgery is not going well, and the patient is dying on the table. “It doesn’t look good, Trapper,” says Ugly John, the anesthetist. Trapper John muses about originally wanting to be an architect. Pierce, the happy pagan, gestures to Mulcahy. “Over here, Father. We need some cross action.”
Mulcahy takes the patient’s hand, closes his eyes, grasps his rosary, and begins to pray. The patient briefly opens his eyes and moves a bit. “The blood pressure is still low, but it’s better,” observes Ugly John. “Hang another unit of blood,” orders McIntire.
“What was that about not being sure you did any good?” Pierce asks with eyebrows arched.
“It’s not supposed to work that way, you know,” Mulcahy replies, not knowing whether to be joyful or embarrassed.
What do we do with the healing stories in the gospels? What do we do with the need for healing and wholeness in our ministries in the name of Jesus? I have prayed for the healing of a spouse, parents, other relatives, parishioners, friends, neighbors, and strangers. I have offered those prayers often in dire and even apparently hopeless circumstances.
Most of the time, those prayers were not followed by the desired outcome. But sometimes they were. Like Father Mulcahy (admittedly, one of my heroes and role models in pastoral ministry), I was more nonplussed by the effective prayers than by the ineffective ones. In our scientific, rational, evidence-based, materialist world, it’s not supposed to work that way, you know.
“The biblical healing stories often trouble us as much as they tantalize us,” writes Fred Gaiser. “The prospect of healing through the power of God or the touch of Jesus holds out promise to all, especially those in immediate distress or danger. Yet,” he observes, “the possibility of miraculous or even what seems to be magical cure seems elusive at best and, at worst, downright alien to much of what we have learned about God and Christian faith” (page 5).
The “we” in Gaiser’s writing refers to those of us in most “mainline” traditions and certainly does not refer to those in many other branches of the Christian family. Perhaps we late-modern rationalist Christians could learn a thing or three from those other branches. But for the sake of this study, I’m willing to grant Gaiser’s description of the majority of his readers and our theological predilections.
Amy-Jill Levine observes that we encounter medicine, magic, and miracles in the pages of Christian scripture. You can tell it’s a miracle, she says, when it’s free. Yes, she observes with a smirk, free health care is indeed a miracle (at least here in the States). But there is more going on here than charity, as Gaiser observes in the vocabulary of the second healing – the raising of the little girl from the dead.
Jesus commands that the little girl should “rise up” (the Greek word egeiro) and in response she gets up (the Greek word anistehmi). “Both of these Greek words are employed frequently in the New Testament beyond their everyday use to speak of Jesus’ resurrection,” Gaiser notes. “The reader is made to understand that this is more than could be expected from a traveling miracle worker.”
“The girl’s resurrection from the dead,” he continues, “comes in anticipation of and with the power of the resurrection that is present in Jesus and that finally proves the basis for all his healings. Jesus is not just the best wonder worker in the neighborhood,” Gaiser concludes, “In him, is the very power of God to create and re-create life…” (page 9).
For Jesus, it is supposed to work this way, you know.
Mark is presenting the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In Jesus, the Reign of God is drawing near and is even now effective among us. In response, we are invited to get a new way of seeing the world and to put our trust in that Good News in life and in death. That trust seems to arise most readily in situations of desperation. That’s one of the themes in our text this week.
Gaiser notes that there is no formulaic relationship between “faith” and healing. “Faith and healing seem always to be related in the New Testament,” he notes, “but how they relate seems different in almost every case” (page 9). The woman in the crowd is at the end of her rope. Jesus appears to be her last hope. Jairus throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs repeatedly for him to come and heal his little girl. Jesus tells the woman that her faith has made her well. Jesus urges Jairus not to fear but to have faith.
“This is the saving faith to which the formula refers (‘Your faith has made you well’),” Gaiser argues, “no longer merely the hopeful longing of the worried father or the desperate reaching out of the unclean woman (though both are present and significant in their own way), but faith in Jesus as he is known already in the Gospel as one who comes to proclaim ‘the good news of God’ and the coming of the kingdom (Mark 1:14–15)” (page 10).
That’s all well and good for the characters in Mark’s story, but what about for us? Is it supposed to work that way or not? “We are happy to be included in the saving work of Christ, the forgiveness of sins,” Gaiser writes, “but what, for us, are the healing dimensions of these stories, if any? Might we,” he wonders, “rather have simply the miracle worker?” I know any number of times when I would have answered with a resounding “Yes!”
That is, as Gaiser knows and assumes, a false dichotomy – between Jesus the unfailing healer and Jesus the Suffering Savior of all. Instead, he notes, they are one in the same. That is the reality to keep before us in this text. Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him? Who is this, that a desperate woman can be made whole by the brush of a robe? Who is this who sees death as slumber and mortality as temporary? That’s the real burden of Mark’s song – this is Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God — the one who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life, a ransom for many.
Jesus is not in the business of delaying, deferring, and/or denying the power of death. Those are modern games that we play too often and too well. The desperate woman in the crowd succumbed to mortality at some point in the future. The funeral for Jairus’ little girl was rescheduled, not repealed. If it were up to me, I would always negotiate for another second, another minute, another day with a loved one who was dying. But merely extending existence is not what we mean by “eternal” life.
Miracles of healing do happen – although they may be described in a variety of ways depending on one’s frame of reference and reality. When they do, we who follow Jesus see them as pointers to the greater healing of the cosmos – the defeat of sin, death, and the devil for good and all in the New Creation.
“Just as Jesus wasn’t coming to be a one-man liberation movement in the traditional revolutionary sense,” Tom Wright argues, “so he wasn’t coming to be a one-man emergency medical centre. He was indeed starting a revolution, and he was indeed bringing God’s healing power, but his aim went deeper,” Wright continues, “these things were signs of the real revolution, the real healing, that God was to accomplish through his death and resurrection. Signposts are important, but they aren’t the destination” (Kindle Location 1274).
That’s a helpful image and reminder in this conversation. In fact, Father Mulcahy, sometimes it is supposed to work that way. After all, we still need signposts to find our way. Some of those signs might be healings. Some might be sermons. Some might be sacraments and prayers and liturgy. Some might be works of justice and peace. Some might be in the person of the neighbor, the stranger, even the enemy. Jesus points the way in lots of ways.
“Only if we see Jesus’ movement in all its dimensions, including the political one, will we understand that behind the intense and intimate human dramas of each story there lies a larger, and darker, theme to which Mark is repeatedly drawing our attention,” Wright continues. “Jesus is on his way to confronting evil at its very heart. He will meet Death itself, which threatens God’s whole beautiful creation, and defeat it in a way as unexpected as these two healings. This time, though,” the good bishop reminds us, “there will be no command to silence.”
More to come…
Resources and References
Gaiser, Frederick J. “In Touch with Jesus: Healing in Mark 5:21–43.” Word & World, Volume 30, Number 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 5-15.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.